Next US administration signals tough policy on Saudi Arabia

In only rare instances historically do countries that enjoyed a long close relationship shift so quickly.

 Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (photo credit: FAISAL AL NASSER/ REUTERS)
Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
One of the most interesting US foreign policy developments in the last decade has been the slow shift from a policy of close cooperation with Riyadh, to one that is more critical and may become almost hostile to Saudi Arabia.
Only in rare instances, historically, do countries that enjoyed a long close relationship shift so quickly. The reasons for this US shift are complex but they are also a clear trajectory that dates from the period of the Obama administration.
Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor for President-elect Joe Biden, posted tweets critical of Saudi Arabia on Sunday, slamming the kingdom for sentencing Loujain al-Hathloul. He said that the Biden administration will “stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”
This universal approach to human rights issues is in line with the general perception that the US has of itself. Washington has for over a hundred years championed human rights, religious freedom and other values such as self-determination and freedom of navigation. However, while the US has championed or paid lip service to these ideas, its actual policy on these issues has often been either neutral, or the diametric opposite.
The historic relationship with Saudi Arabia is only one example where the US has generally said one thing at home but did the opposite abroad.
Riyadh is no more abusive of human rights than many other countries, it was a bit of a standout because of its close relations with the US. For instance, the kingdom has often been accused of beheading foreign workers, or ignoring abuses against them. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was also accused of funding religious extremism. Even today the accusation that “Wahhabi” teachings that have their origins in Saudi Arabia, underpin extremist ideologies in places like Chechnya, are still common, even if Riyadh’s direct connection to these ideologies have changed.
For the US, this was never a major issue. Before and after 9/11 the close relationship was generally built on the concept that Riyadh was one pillar of the US strategic system in the Middle East.
Dating from the Cold War this saw Saudi as a conduit to the Islamic world and a natural ally against Soviet Communism and other ideologies but the defeat of Saddam Hussein changed some of the calculus in the kingdom and the US.
As the Soviet Union disappeared and radical Islamist ideologies became a threat, questions arose whether Riyadh was taking this threat seriously and whether traditional allies of the US, such as Pakistan, were also secretly or openly funneling and supporting anti-Western terror groups.  
Of particular interest here is the degree to which the US took seriously the various intersecting and competing far-right religious ideologies linked to Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements or “Jihadists.”
In many cases, it appears that US diplomats and fellow travelers hosted and even found allies among the hard right of the religious conservatives who flirted with extremism in the region.  
Several factors have changed in the last decade that appeared to distance the US from Saudi Arabia. First, a generation came of age in the US that was more critical of Riyadh on human rights issues, and also tended to see Iran as a potentially more positive force in the region.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in Qatar and Ankara were able to influence some to believe that the real problem in the Middle East was not the authoritarians in Tehran and Ankara but rather, in Cairo and Riyadh.
Lastly, Saudi Arabia’s own internal politics saw members of the kingdom’s inner circle pushed aside and those members had friends in the US and the West.  
The human rights criticism of Saudi Arabia would ring truer if it was universally applied across the Middle East, but it is not. US commentators who slam Saudi are silent when Ankara-backed extremists ethnically cleansed Afrin of Kurds and minorities.
They sometimes advocate greater freedoms in Saudi Arabia, but not in Qatar or Iran. They correctly stand by women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, but have less to say when women have fewer rights in Iran. It’s unclear, for instance, why there has not been an outcry in the US over Ankara’s jailing of opposition politician Leyla Guven for two decades.
Why is there less of an outcry over Ankara giving journalist Can Dundar an almost 30-year prison sentence in absentia. Surely, those are human rights abuses.
As usual, US talk on human rights tends to be more about policy than universal application, and Saudi Arabia is in the crosshairs.
For many years, US officials refrained from any criticism of Saudi Arabia and only the far Right or Left, would slam Riyadh, but not the centrists.
That began to change when Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s power grew. As some of those with the closest connections to Washington were pushed aside, criticism grew.
The killing of former insider Jamal Khashoggi produced an avalanche of criticism, as did the crackdown on corruption in 2017. The war in Yemen tarnished Riyadh’s image and became a wedge issue, exploited by Iran and others.
Riyadh overplayed its hand at the wrong time, not judging the changed environment and that its enemies in Ankara and Tehran and Doha were looking for excuses to paint it in a bad light.
The gulf crises with Qatar in 2018 and Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with the Trump administration also seems to have made it a more partisan issue. Rarely, in just a short period, has a country that enjoyed relatively consistent support from the leadership found itself so rapidly a hot potato in Washington.
That creates a major challenge for the Kingdom and has also led to changes in strategy relating to Israel, and also shifting support towards more peace deals with Israel. Many are watching whether the tough talk on Saudi Arabia that appears to be coming from the incoming administration will result in real changes, or if it is mostly about perceptions and talk.
If it is about human rights, which some claim it is, then it will be interesting to see if demands for reforms on the issue also manifest in criticism of Turkey, Iran and Qatar, or whether just of Saudi Arabia and its friends in the region, such as Egypt will be in the frame.
It will also be interesting to see how much criticism of Israel and the UAE may increase, or remain less frequent, in this new policymaking era.